Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog: Exceeding Your Limits!

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, man on precipice above thick blankets of Fog

The Romanticists observe the world through their heightened sensitivity. These artists look beyond the confinements of the objective world and convey it extraordinarily. Caspar David Friedrich was a pioneering German Romanticist painter in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He often represented allegorical narratives in his work wherein different elements have deep symbolic meaning. He is well known for his detailed depictions of expansive landscapes which calls for subjective interpretations from the viewers. 

German romanticism emphasized not only hidden beauty but also wit and humor. Romantic artists strongly believed that reality can only be understood through the unique subjective experiences of every individual. According to Casper David Friedrich, “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also omit to paint that which he sees before him.”

What’s the Painting Made on

Friedrich was a student of one of the most progressive art schools of his time, the Copenhagen Academy in Denmark. His earliest art pieces were in sepia, characterized by a distinct brown colored medium with a slight tinge of purple. In his later paintings, such as ‘The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’, Friedrich used oil on canvas.

The theme of the Painting

Sublime became one of the core ideas of German Romanticism based on vast allusive landscapes focusing on the more negative emotions felt by humans such as helplessness against the world and nature. The theory of Sublime art as put forward by Edmund Burke in 1757 established the idea as an aesthetic impact that produces the most powerful sensation humans are capable of experiencing. According to Burke, “Whatever is in any way awful, is acquainted with dreadful objects, or acts in a manner comparable to horror, is a wellspring of the Sublime.”

When and Where, and Price

The wanderer above the sea of Fog, also known as Wanderer Above the Mist or Mountaineer in a Misty Landscape, is an iconic piece of romanticism completed in the year 1818. This work is one of the best examples of German Romanticism. The painting is presently at the Kunsthalle Art Museum in Hamburg, Germany. The painting is not on sale presently but was valued at approximately $2.75 million at a 2018 auction in Missouri. 

Frankenstein and The Wanderer

Frankenstein is a horror fiction novel with a Gothic tone written by Mary Shelley in the same year in which the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog was executed, that is, 1818. 

The painting and the novel are often connected based on their common central theme of Sublime. Both works bring a sense of horror and comfort simultaneously. In the painting, the theme of sublime can be felt through the ruggedness of the terrain, the idea of being at a height where a slip can be fatal, and uncertainty in the lack of visibility through the fog. Similarly in Shelley’s novel, a similar uneasiness can be sensed when Victor first lays his eyes on the creature, and his heart is filled with disgust and horror. 

The comfort in the painting comes from the soft color palette of pastel blues and pinks in the sky with a hint of yellow. The soft brush strokes bring in a calm and serene touch to the painting. In Frankenstein, Victor also seeks comfort in the beauty of nature. Finally, the image of the wanderer can be likened to Victor’s journey to the Alps. 

Elements of the Painting

In the painting, the silhouette of a male figure or ‘the wanderer’ stands on rocky terrain with his back to us, as he surveys the world from above. The figure is dressed in a deep green knee-length coat and is holding a walking stick in his right hand with a relaxed left hand in his pocket. His red hair is disheveled by the wind, while he looks down on the dense, almost opaque blanket of fog that covers the landscape before him.

At the horizon, the all-pervading fog seems to stretch out infinitely as it mixes seamlessly with the cloudy sky. Rugged ridges can be seen protruding from the invisible landscapes beneath the fog similar to the one the wanderer stands on himself. This gives an impression of islands in the sea. Towards the horizon, these mountains slowly level into lower plains with sparse trees and again rise to mountains close to the horizon. 

A veil of fog still engulfs the valleys, separating the Wanderer from the world below him. The man appears to have climbed up the difficult terrain by himself, where he finally takes a noble stance. Having earned himself a vantage point few others can ever attain, the Wanderer stands triumphantly, looking exhausted and at peace at the same time. The painting has been named the “Wanderer in the Sea of Fog” since the fog swirling beneath the man emulates a sea very closely. The landscape below the sea of fog is hardly visible just like the bed of a water body. In the painting, the fog even imitates waves washing against the craggy rocks.  

The landscape in the painting is not the exact representation of an existing scene, rather it has been pieced together with various elements across Germany and Switzerland. For example, the precipice that the figure stands on has been taken from one of his drawings dated 3rd June 1813 of the Kaiserkrone hill. Unlike most paintings of beautiful landscapes, this painting has portrait dimensions which enhances the wanderer’s posture, making him appear taller. These dimensions are also instrumental in giving the audience an eye-level view, just as the wanderer. 

Friedrich was well acquainted with the principle of aesthetic harmony, known as the Golden Section put forward by Luca Pacioli in 1509. In the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, he applied this principle where he divides the painting at the horizon, three parts above and below the dividing line. By keeping the proportions of the painting in accordance with this principle and maintaining its mathematical ratio the painter skillfully enhances the aesthetic appeal of his masterpiece. 

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Connection

Philosophers and scholars of the 19th century were heavily influenced by Friedrich’s work that skilfully conveyed spiritual, philosophical, and even political concepts elegantly. Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy was reflected in Caspar David Friedrich’s oil painting. Nietzsche began spending most of his time in the mountains of Switzerland after leaving the University of Basel in 1879 due to ill health.

The Wanderer is a character Nietzsche described in his work ‘Human, all too Human’ as one who has reached a fully realized state of “intellectual emancipation” and, having left behind all moral and cultural perspectives, has nowhere to go. 

Friedrich Nietzsche
Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche

The Wanderer returns in the second volume of Human, All Too Human. The Wanderer is once again becoming increasingly autobiographical as Nietzsche describes it. Initially, he described The Wanderer as traveling through a desert, but in the second volume, he places The Wanderer in the mountains, above society and modernity. From the ridge, Nietzsche calls down to the prospective free spirits, rather than seeing philosophy as a means to build logical edifices, they view it as an invitation to adventure.

Carlos Idrobo explores the relationship between Nietzsche’s ideas and the famous Friedrich painting in his essay. In Idrobo’s view, Rückenfigur is the compositional device of German Romantic painting in which the figure is seen from behind. The composition of Friedrich’s painting allows us to experience the visual experience of The Wanderer. By placing us behind the figure, we can view the world along with him, and in some way identify with him. Friedrich himself believed that self-expression comes around only through self-isolation which is usually a core theme of his work.

During the life of Friedrich, spirituality was undergoing a type of renewal where materialism was strongly de-emphasized. This is when popular artists and philosophers turned to nature as a symbol of spirituality and for inspiration. Nature was considered to be an unbridled powerful source from which we had a lot to learn. 

Caspar David Friedrich and Friedrich Nietzsche both present to us an idea of The Wanderer: a visual and literary representation respectively. As the painter and the philosopher identified closely with the Wander, so did the audience. In the painting, it is the mysticism and enigma of the scene that makes us yearn for adventure. In Nietzsche’s philosophy, it is the act of wandering, and his example as a wandering philosopher, that again calls one to adventure. Thus, even though the works of the painter and the philosopher are not directly related or influenced by one another, they seem artistically connected.

Analysis and Meaning of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Friedrich skilfully imbues this landscape painting with a sense of self-reflection and contemplation. Some believe the painting to be a self-portrait of Friedrich as the figure resembles the painter’s complexion and hair.  

The painter is not shutting out the viewer by putting the figure’s back towards us, rather he enables us to see the world through his perspective, conveying his thoughts and emotions with a more personal touch by showing us what he sees. Joseph Koerner noted that the center of the painting rests at the wanderer’s heart which subliminally brings the audience closer to his feelings. As the wanderer stands in deep contemplation, he nudges the viewers to think in one of two ways- optimistic and pessimistic. 

Taking the optimistic approach, one would think that the wanderer having climbed the top of this rugged crag basks in his achievement. His stance may be reflective of him feeling dignified and inspired standing at an elevated precipice looking over the world before him. 

The pessimist would see the wanderer as being lost, distressed by doubts gazing into nothingness, unsure where the answers lie. The fog enhances the man’s inner turmoil. As the cauldron of dense eddying mist obscures the land below, it is indicative of the ambiguity in the man’s mind. His aloneness is intensified by the sombreness of the scene and its vastness. Here, the wanderer might become increasingly aware of the contrast between the infiniteness of the universe and his trivial existence. His placement on the verge of the rocks gives a sense of predicament which points towards an incomplete journey. 

It is impossible to certainly state what the wanderer is feeling as he stands on the precipice in solitude. Perhaps it is the vagueness of emotions between optimism and pessimism that makes this painting so remarkable. Despite this ambiguity, the intensity of emotions is not reduced in the slightest. 

Since the audience is unable to decipher the man’s feelings from his face, the tone of the painting is questionable. The overall romantic style of this work suggests that the wanderer stands mesmerized by the eerie scene before him. The tone can be likened to a cosmic question mark, the entire composition evokes a feeling of noble optimism and terrifying loneliness.

image highlighting the man in the painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog
The Man in this painting represents the modern man. Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Friedrich Neitchze

Colors and Lighting

The silhouette of the wanderer suggests that the primary source of light is the Sun which is out in the front of the figure and slightly on the left. The painter has shown just enough light to keep things clear but not make the scene too bright. The fog and the low intensity of light indicate that it is still quite early in the day. The sky is mostly clear, and you can just make out some light behind the clouds. It also appears that light is coming from beneath the fog, illuminating it. Fog and cliffs in the distance showcase nature’s effortless beauty.

The colors used are mild, pastel shades of pink, blue and yellow, with a contrasting deep green. The contrast between the extremely mild background and the dark green forces the eyes to lock on the wanderer at first glance. 

Friedrich has used darker colors for the hard and solid objects such as the rocks and the figure. He has used lighter colors for softer elements like fog, sky, and clouds. This presents another contrast between the tangible and intangible elements. 

As the painter attempts to show distance and depth, the colors fade and become cooler simultaneously. To convey the vastness of the scene, the painter has framed only the bottom of the painting with the rocks in the foreground while leaving the remaining portion for negative spaces such as the sky and clouds. Similarly to show distance, the edges of the various elements in the painting recede softly into the distance.

“The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog“ is a masterpiece of Friedrich’s allegorical landscapes in which a lonely figure is silhouetted against a powerful and moving background. Painters and philosophers of the time reevaluated humanity’s place in the world and their works reflected newfound respect for nature. Throughout his oeuvre, Caspar David Fredrich sought to convey a subjective, emotional response to nature through symbolic means. In Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, the artist is believed to be glorifying the emotion of curiosity and hope, as well as nature. The sky and scattered shards of light represent hope. While the young man is in the center of the painting, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the background.

Even though his paintings were not given their due recognition during his lifetime, today Casper David Fredrich is seen as an icon of the German Romantic movement.

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